Wednesday, March 16, 2011
“We’re sick and tired of being alone”—John Eckhardt
John and Linda Eckhardt moved to Maine in 1985 with their 1 year-old son Joshua. They came to plant “Stauron Ministries”, focusing on establishing a mission base on the YWAM model, a center for discipleship that would train, equip, and release people into their calling.
It was a pioneering work established in Brunswick, but initially birthed in 1982 in Topsham, a small town north of Portland that wasn’t even on the Rand-McNally Road Atlas John was using when he first came to Maine in 1982 to ‘spy out the land’. While the work went forward, isolation and loneliness were a constant reality. Area congregations were not well connected. Also, the geography of Maine, a big state with a small population, tended to re-enforce isolation.
Early Efforts at Unity
In 1989, John and a group of pastors from the Mid-coast region started a pastor’s association, the “Mid-coast Evangelical Ministers Fellowship”, a traditional pastor’s fellowship representing 50-65 ministries.
That same year, a group of 20 prophetic ministers from the mid-west came to Maine and did a sweep of the state, ministering in numerous churches, teaching on prophecy and prophesying over churches, even in many places that were not oriented towards prophetic ministry. Leaders identified each other as a result, but during the following years of working on ‘in house’ issues, relationships struggled as the majority of ministers left the ministry or the state.
In the 1990’s, the Mid-coast Evangelical Minister’s Fellowship was involved in bringing Luis Palau to Maine for a series of meetings over the course of 3 weeks. Several evangelical pastors had gone to scout out Luis—they came back reporting that his preaching was so compelling that they had gone forward themselves at the altar call!
This evangelistic effort brought the Church together like nothing ever had—around 500 Maine churches participated and many people responded to the gospel. Although 500 churches had worked together on the event, there was no infrastructure and no heart-level connection between leaders.
After the event it was as though nothing had ever happened.
In the last decade, Rich Brink, a pastor in Oakland, ME, gathered believers together for prayer in multiple initiatives, including a gathering in each of the 16 counties of Maine. Other ministries brought in nationally recognized preachers for conferences resulting in ‘like-minded’ leaders further identifying each other and building new friendships. Although no infrastructure was formed through these events, they were a relational hub for cross-pollination and partnership. A relational network was beginning emerge.
Moving beyond a pastor’s association
It was clear to John that traditionally envisioned pastor’s groups did not result in lasting unity or in structures that enabled ongoing kingdom work. John began to dream of a fellowship of leaders that would be more lasting, a vision that came as he drank more deeply of the Scriptures.
In 2007, John extended an invitation to people around the state who had strong, recognized leadership with the purpose of building relationships in order to connect the leadership of the state. The idea was to have a state-wide relational network of Elders who would think strategically about the purposes of God for the state of Maine. This new vision was intended to correct the problems with traditional pastor’s associations: the lack of heart-level relationships and lack of lasting infrastructure that allows for ongoing, corporate ministry
A roomful of 20 or 30 ministers gathered once a month for 3 months: at the end of 3 months the gathering had become just another pastor’s gathering. The core team promptly shut it down.
In 2008, they made another attempt, inviting ministry leaders around the region. Once again, after 3 months the gathering had become just another “pastor’s luncheon”. Once again, John and the team shut it down.
In 2009, John and several others decided that this time, rather than inviting “everyone”, they would be selective and only invite those who matched Scriptural eldership criteria. They came up with 6 guidelines:
1) Their wives were happy in the ministry
2) They were able to manage their children/children not in open rebellion (Titus 1:6)
3) They had a general good reputation in their city (no affairs, $ scandals, etc) (Titus 1:7)
4) They could demonstrate they were under authority and accountable to someone else
5) They possessed ‘macro’ vision beyond their local congregation
6) They played well with others
This process alienated some people in the state—people were offended and some said “who are you to do this?”
However, on the 3rd try, the hearts of those who were invited were knit together. While John was recognized as the initiator and vision holder, he worked hard to avoid being perceived as the “founder”. God works through a plural eldership. The vision was not to create a “network” or a “hierarchy” with someone at the top of a pyramid, it was to form a coalition that could act as one because their hearts were truly one. They called the group PACE, “Prophetic and Apostolic Coalition of Elders”.
In the initial meetings, macro vision for the state began to erupt as the group discussed “how can we serve the purposes of God for Maine?” The possibility for united action in strengthening young leaders, on social justice issues in the state, or in encouraging a positive business climate was thrilling. John says, “We began to see the potential of this thing to be a blessing to the entire state. In our hearts, we felt this was right—our hearts were leaping.”
In spite of leaping hearts, the group decided to slow down and not jump out too far. For the first year, the group met every two months and focused on building relationships and forming a firm foundation. Projects and vision were put on hold until the relational fabric had been thoroughly formed. The group of 14 couples (husbands and wives together) would meet on a Friday night for a time of worship and ministry to one another. Saturday was a ‘council’ format, at least 4 hours around the same table discussing whatever needed to be addressed in the state.
The focus on worshiping together and ministering to one another began to pay off over the next year and a half. John says, “I didn’t know half of these guys before we started coming together. At this point, we’ve fallen so deeply in love with each other that these folks (spouses included) are now my best friends…it’s the closest thing I’ve discovered to John 17 unity in my 32 years of knowing the Lord”.
Maine Elders Coalition: Coming above the radar
After a year and a half of building relationships with a core team of 12 leadership couples, PACE sensed the timing of the Lord to “come above the radar”. The name was changed to Maine Elder’s Coalition—not “the” Maine Elders Coalition, because this group is not making claims to some kind of exclusive leadership in the state. “We’re not trying to be ‘the’ group for the state…we’re just pulling together with those who share common vision.”
Out of the now 20 core ministry couples, 5 have been nominated to work together and serve churches in trouble around the state. The council has been called on numerous times in the past year to help with ministry marriages, assist ministries in transition, and to help forge peace between ministries that are fighting.
Another practical area of ministry for this group of senior ministers are monthly gatherings to coach, train, and mentor transitioning and emerging leaders, including those ministering in the marketplace, worship leaders, elders, and pretty much anyone who needs mentoring. The last of these gatherings in Augusta brought together 30 ministry leaders hungry for deeper relationships and a sense of connection. The Bangor emerging ministers group which began in March, had 30 in attendance. As John says, “why should the next generation of Christian leaders in the state have to grow up in a vacuum and go through the same isolation, neglect, and pioneering work that we’ve had to do?”
It’s actually Working
The Maine Elders Coalition is a unique example of how the Spirit of God is stirring believers around the region to efforts of unity that are providing strength to the Church in each state. Those involved are the first to admit their sense of wonder at the tangible sense of God’s blessing on these efforts.
John says, “We’re amazed that this is actually working. We’re just sick and tired of being alone and we know that we need to have right relationships with one another. I’ve been in ministry for 32 years, and have been trying to see something like this happen for 20 or 30 years, and now it is happening. We’ve really found a place of shalom and we’re totally giddy to see what God is doing.”
Let it be, Lord, and multiply this level of love, relationship, and partnership in the gospel throughout our region.